2019 Jeep Wrangler review: First-place performance
For the past three years, I've competed in the Rebelle Rally: a grueling, week-long, off-road competition in the California and Nevada desert. You don't get to use phones , GPS or any modern technology. Instead, you make your way to different checkpoints using a map, a compass, some rulers and a lot of skill.
You also get to run the Rebelle Rally in the off-road vehicle of your choice. And after competing in the Rebelle twice in pickup trucks , I finally -- finally! -- took home the first-place finish behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
Girls' week out
The Rebelle Rally is just for the ladies. I recognize there's some controversy here, but founder Emily Miller wanted to create a place where women could get valuable off-road time without the implied pressures of competing against men.
The motorsports world certainly doesn't discriminate against women. I race off-road with the boys in the desert all the time. But all it takes is one walk down a pit lane with scantily clad photo-op girls to know motorsports doesn't always treat women with equality. The Rebelle Rally aims to give women the confidence to compete without people automatically applying a "he versus she" angle to the event.
Furthermore, the Rebelle Rally is in no way pinkwashed. You're up at 5 a.m. every day. You don't get phones or chase cars. For seven days straight, you take on the toughest terrain America's western desert has to offer, from the open vistas of northern Nevada, to the rocky trails of Johnson Valley, California, to the sea of 300-foot-tall sand dunes in Glamis near the Mexican border.
Each morning, my teammate Rebecca Donaghe would plot the day's checkpoints on a map, and we'd figure out the best way to get to all of them. Some checkpoints are easy to find, marked by a green flag on an easily traversed route. Others are more difficult, marked by a small blue flag or a stake in the ground. These are often placed at the top of a steep climb or hidden out of sight in a ditch. The unmarked blank checkpoints are the most difficult, with navigators relying on triangulation and precise map reading to find the exact point. Tracker signals are sent back to the rally headquarters when checkpoints are found, and points are awarded accordingly. She who finishes with the most points, wins.
The best tool for the job
Jeep has been synonymous with off-roading since World War II, and this brand-new JL-generation Wrangler is arguably the best go-anywhere SUV yet. Available in two- or four-door body styles, and in Sport, Sport S, Sahara or Rubicon trims, all Wranglers come with four-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case. A 3.6-liter V6 engine is standard, but a new 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 with a mild-hybrid system is available. A six-speed manual transmission is standard with the V6, and an eight-speed automatic is optional.
My steed for the Rebelle Rally is a four-door Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, with the 3.6-liter engine. This mill produces a respectable 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and my tester has the optional eight-speed automatic.
Taking a Jeep to the Rebelle Rally almost feels like cheating -- it's just that capable. The top-of-the-line Rubicon model has all the off-road goodies I could want here: Front and rear locking differentials, full skid plate protection, rock rails and a 4:1 low-range gear ratio. The transmission's final crawl ratio is 77.2:1, allowing for gobs of torque at low speeds to get up, over or through any obstacle.
But that doesn't mean the Rebelle Rally is a walk in the park. On the fourth day, I drove the Jeep straight into the knee-deep thick mud of a flooded desert lakebed, and the Wrangler was instantly stuck. Rebecca and I hopped out, immediately covered in the super-thick muck. It filled our shoes, as well as the tread of the Jeep's 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 tires. Good as these tires are in the sand, the tread isn't made for thick mud. And with no outside help available, it was up to Rebecca and me to get the Jeep out. We had no winch, just Maxtrax recovery boards, two shovels and a whole lot of faith.
After 20 minutes of scooping mud away from the tires to get the Maxtrax boards underneath them, pushing mud out of the tread for any hope of traction, I hopped in the driver's seat while Rebecca stayed back to push. I shifted into low gear and locked everything up to distribute torque equally to all four wheels. Even with gentle throttle, the tires just spun. Airing down the tires was the only solution, spreading the tire tread enough to hook up on the Maxtrax and get us out of that pit.
Rebecca and I never found ourselves stuck in the mud for the rest of the rally, thankfully. In fact, aside from that one instance, we never had to lock both differentials at any other point on the rally, even on the tough trails of Johnson Valley.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to folks who know the Jeep Wrangler. It is, without question, the most capable SUV you can buy today, full stop. And even though it's not the fastest thing with four-wheel drive, I was able to outrun a modified Toyota Tundra in a sand wash. In fact, my average speed was about the same as when I did this same rally last year, in the desert-running Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 with its fancy-pants off-road shocks.
After seven days of competition, Rebecca and I tied for first place in the overall rally (the other team also drove a Wrangler, but with much bigger tires and a lift). In addition, we won the Bone Stock category, as the team with the most points to compete in an off-the-showroom-floor vehicle.
All the right stuff
Even if you never take the Wrangler off road, you'll find it to be a nicely equipped SUV. The Rebelle Rally doesn't allow for any high-tech gadgetry, so the 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen was sealed up and never used. Happily, with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto , as well as a Wi-Fi hotspot, two USB ports, two 12-volt accessory ports and a 115-volt, three-prong AC outlet, you'll be plenty connected to the world around you when you get back to civilization.
Given the choice, I wouldn't have picked the soft-top configuration of this Wrangler. Not only does it let in a ton of dust, it makes for loud motoring. My only other complaint is an overall lack of smaller storage cubbies inside the Wrangler, but then again, most buyers won't be bringing pencils, rulers, calculators, compasses, timers or magnifying glasses on their daily drives.
In fact, for my money, I'd go for a Rubicon. But I'd spec the two-door Wrangler, simply because its shorter wheelbase gives it a better breakover angle. I'd also opt for the 2.0-liter turbo engine in order to get better fuel economy -- the EPA rates this model at 24 miles per gallon combined. For times when I'm driving on pavement, a $1,690 package gets me adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring. And finally, a steel bumper and LED lighting package sets me back an additional $2,290.
All in, my perfect two-door Jeep costs $50,300, compared to the $53,095 of my Rebelle Rally rig. That's not a huge savings, mind you. But then again, I could spend that extra money on better tires -- or a winch.
Originally published March 3.
Update, March 4: Intro updated.